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Storylines once again dominate Pens-Caps rivalry

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Storylines once again dominate Pens-Caps rivalry
With the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic coming up on Jan. 1, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will tune up Thursday when they meet for the first time this season.
It's an appetizer sampler served cold over an arena chill eight days before the main course fills us up with a frigid buffet served on an icy gridiron. Or, in more succinct terms, it's the NHL's Indoor Game of the Year -- for now.
 
Pittsburgh at Washington.
 
Chapter One. The Preview. The Pre-Christmas Classic. The HBO Showdown.
 
Anyone who thinks this game is strictly for two points and nothing more is not aware of the history these teams have shared for the past half-decade.
 
Yes, in its simplest sense, Thursday's game (7 p.m., NHL Network-US) is just one of 82 on the schedule for each team; but this is not just another home game for the Capitals, another road game for the Penguins, or another ho-hum December game for Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as they meet for the first of four times in the 2010-11 regular season.
 
But that's never the case when these two bitter rivals meet. They don't like each other and they're not afraid to say it.
 
The game at Verizon Center will not only allow the unfriendly foes to rekindle their hatred for each other, but it will set up the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and, likely, give HBO's "24/7" production team enough material to make a nightly show for a week.
 
What could the cameras capture? Funny you should ask.
 
What follows are five elements to Thursday's showdown that we feel could become one of the major storylines as these rivals bang heads yet again:
 
1) Eight great again?
 
The inevitable breakout game has to be coming soon, right? It just has to be for Ovechkin, who has no goals in the past seven games and just 2 in the last 18.
 
Wouldn't it just be perfect timing if he pumped a few past Marc-Andre Fleury on Thursday night?
 
Despite his goal-scoring struggles and what many people are saying, Ovechkin is not playing poorly. Far from it. He still has assists in each of the past three games and 12 during the past 18.
 
But with the Penguins in town, Crosby on the opposite side of the ice and the hockey world waiting for something magical to happen at Verizon Center, now would be about the right time for No. 8 to steal the show.
 
2. Matchup busters
 
Part of what has made the Penguins so good recently is their ability to roll four lines, each of which has a purpose.
 
We know Craig Adams centers the fourth line, mostly between Arron Asham and Mike Rupp, but that line is still dangerous because of its speed and physicality on the forecheck.
 
Fast doesn't even begin to describe the third line of Chris Conner, Mark Letestu and Tyler Kennedy. Don't blink.
 
What Pittsburgh does to make it doubly difficult on the opponent is sometimes Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are together on the same line and other times they're apart.
 
So, should the Caps go to their shutdown grouping of Brooks Laich and David Steckel, who does it cover? The easy answer is Crosby, but that opens the door for Malkin.
 
Will they match at all? We'll find out.
 
3. The Semin factor
 
Alexander Semin, who played Tuesday against New Jersey after missing three games with an undisclosed injury, presents an interesting conundrum for Caps coach Bruce Boudreau.
 
When Semin skates on a line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, they may be the most talented trio in the NHL. But the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin line isn't renowned for its defense -- and you know Penguins coach Dan Bylsma would just be salivating at the chance to get Crosby and/or Malkin on the ice against it whenever possible.
 
It wouldn't be shocking to see Boudreau take Semin off the top line and instead go back to Mike Knuble. What you lose in speed with Knuble you make up for in grit.
 
That usually leaves Semin to play with Laich on a second line, but if Boudreau attempts to match he would use Laich with Steckel and Bradley. So where does that leave Semin?
 
It could mean Semin plays on a line with Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera, and that may very well be Boudreau's best option. It would essentially put the onus back on Bylsma to figure out how he wants to defend against two legitimate scoring lines instead of just the one power line.
 
4. Start 'em up
 
The Penguins' balance across three periods can not be undersold.
 
They're one of the fastest starting teams in the League with 36 first-period goals. They're tied for first in the NHL with 43 second-period goals, an obvious indication that they get better as the game goes along. In the third period, when the Penguins are often protecting leads built over the first 40 minutes, they still have 32 goals.
 
The Capitals are the opposite.
 
They've been slow starters this season with only 24 goals for and 33 against in the first period. They score about 75 percent of their goals in the final 40 minutes -- but a slow start against Pittsburgh can be crushing.
 
The Penguins have allowed only 22 goals in the first period, sixth-best in the League.
 
5. The kid with the odd number

 
You know Ovechkin and Crosby. You've of Backstrom, Malkin, Semin and Mike Green. But  pay attention to No. 74 in red, because he is playing like one of the best defensemen in this rivalry right now.
 
A year at this time John Carlson was getting ready to play in the World Junior Championship, preparing to become hockey's version of an American hero by scoring the OT winner to beat Canada in the gold-medal game. Now he's one of the most important players in the Capitals' lineup.
 
Carlson leads Washington in time on ice. He plays on the power play, the penalty kill and is one of the team's most confident and sound defensemen at even strength. He has 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) and a plus-10 rating in 36 games.
 
To know exactly what he's capable of, watch the goal Carlson scored Tuesday against New Jersey. It was an absolute rocket of a shot that Devils goalie Martin Brodeur probably didn't see but definitely had to hear.
 
Yup, you'll watch No. 74 Thursday. He'll make sure of that.
 
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl